What The United States Still Gets Wrong About "The Pursuit Of Happiness"

If Scandinavia has been at the top of your travel bucket list for the past few years, you're definitely not alone. This constellation of Northern European countries bound by the Baltic and Norwegian Seas has recently catapulted to global renown thanks to those irresistible Ikea gadgets, its growing fame as a beauty obsessive's paradise, and its cultural investment in the art of coziness, known as "hygge." But Denmark, Norway, and Iceland have risen to prominence for reasons beyond the universally beloved Ektorp sofa. According to 2017's World Happiness Report, they also top the chart of the most contented nations on Earth.
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It shouldn't be a surprise that countries supported by robust social safety nets dominate this list. So many of the viscerally contested issues plaguing the United States's political landscape — universal healthcare, affordable education, and paid family leave — have been resolved by Scandinavia's generous welfare programs, which tax citizens at high rates but pay them back through an enviable roster of benefits. And as with most debates, America's resistance to investing in a similar system has disproportionately impacted women, who grapple with a unique set of obstacles regarding the demands of work and motherhood, paying for quality childcare, and family planning. Strong Opinions Loosely Held host Elisa Kreisinger spoke with New York Times contributor and author of The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit Of Happiness, Jill Filipovic, to learn more about our resistance to voting for social structures like Scandinavia's that support women — and how to work toward a culture that values broader definitions of success.
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In Donald Trump's America, the GOP's unapologetic assault on the bodily and economic autonomy of female voters has become just another note in the relentless buzz of outrage-inducing presidential scandals. Yet as Filipovic notes, this disregard for the ambitions of women has always been a foundational tenet of American democracy, woven insidiously into the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. "The kind of happiness [the Founders] were talking about is what philosophers call 'eudemonic' happiness, which is not about feeling happy every single day," Filipovic explains. "It's about forming your own identity, pursuing knowledge, seeking new experiences, even if those experiences are challenging, and becoming more of a fully-formed and interesting human being. That is a very male pursuit in the United States."
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Americans have long fetishized this ultra-competitive version of happiness — from roguish cowboys to Wall Street's Gordon Gekkoa. The go-it-alone philosophy glorifies individual desires above collective goals. "It has been men who've been able to think about their identities in that outward-looking way, and it's been on women to be the support system," Filipovic summarizes. "So now we're living in a world that has seen First, Second, and Third wave feminism, where women are much more individually feminist, and we have more feminist cultural and social norms, but we still have financial and political systems that are set up according to this very outdated way of looking at the world. So it's within that system that women are trying to pursue pleasure and pursue happiness, and hitting, inevitably, a lot of walls, because it wasn't set up for us."
The result? Look no further than that teetering pile of yellowing self-help books you may have stashed in your apartment, à la Bridget Jones. Though feminism has made enormous strides reimagining how women can fit into a modern economy and build families beyond the nuclear model, Filipovic points out that the same has not happened for men. Case-in-point, how many male kindergarten teachers or nurses or stay-at-home dads do you know? Probably not tons — and that's a problem, because our definition of masculinity still dominates our inherited sense of what success looks like.
"Instead of [women] trying to fix ourselves on kind of an individual level," Filipovic concludes, "we need to realize that maybe it's not like all of us who are broken — maybe it's the system we are operating and living in. It's our political institutions and our laws that need some serious rehab, and not ourselves."
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